Tuesday 12 October 2021

SCO 25: DAZZLING RHAPSODIES / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review


Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Singapore Conference Hall

Saturday 9 October 2021


The second of Singapore Chinese Orchestra’s 25th anniversary concerts was devoted to works composed more recently, specifically during what we know as the Yeh Tsung era. It was the Shanghai-born American-trained conductor (Music Director since 2002) who defined and revolutionised what may be called Chinese orchestral music with Singaporean characteristics. Nanyang music was essentially his brainchild and is what identifies the SCO from other ensembles of Chinese instruments around the world.


The Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Competition (SICCOC), organised by SCO in 2006, 2011 and 2016, helped establish the landscape for Nanyang music to flourish. Two locally-based composers “discovered” at the first concours have now become recognised names in the Chinese instrumental scene. The first was current SCO composer-in-residence Wang Chen Wei, whose Lion City Rhapsody was given its World Premiere, conducted by Quek Ling Kiong.  


This short bustling overture with its kinetic Nanyin theme Trotting Horse employed characteristic instruments and timbres associated with the five Chinese dialect groups in Singapore, namely Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese. These groups of instruments operated like the concertino section of a baroque concerto grosso, distinguished by their piquant and higher-pitched sounds, lending the work a particularly distinctive flavour. Add Teochew percussion and voice-overs in the five dialects (with well wishes to the SCO), this made for a memorable opener.


There was also a nod to sentimental Mandopop with Phang Kok Jun’s Medley of Singapore Chinese Pop, conducted by Moses Gay, which included songs popularised by Kit Chan, Stephanie Sun, Eric Moo, JJ Lin and Crowd Lu. I concede not knowing a single of these hits, but enjoyed the solos on guan (Jin Shiyi), erhu (Zhao Jianhua), sheng (Guo Changsuo) and dizi (Yin Zhiyang), backed by Shen Guoqin’s enthusiastic drum beat.


Yeh Tsung conducted the rest of the concert, including two concertante works. The first was Tang Jianping’s Spring and Autumn, a single movement concerto for pipa featuring principal Yu Jia in all her vermillion sequined splendour. This is a stunning work in a modern idiom which recalled the chunqiu shidai (Spring and Autumn era, circa eighth to fifth century b.c.), a tumultuous period of Chinese history. There are virtuoso cadenzas aplenty, after which a procession of Central Asian flavour took place, leading to a feverish climax where Yu’s pipa stood out above the din. Completing the spectacle was a wild chase, which was breathtaking to say the least.


The other concerto was Liu Xijin’s The Legend of the Merlion, already an established classic. Commissioned by the SCO in 1999, and taken on tour several times, this gaohu concerto is unusual for its slow-fast-slow three-movement form. Forget the programmatic story of a tourist-board created chimera (PR-generated fiction at its most contrived), it still has good thematic material that was well brought out by SCO concertmaster Li Baoshun.


The first movement (Seek Blessings) was meditative and reflective, contrasted by a scherzo-like middle movement (Raging Sea) which closed with the reassuring chimes of tubular bells. The lyrical finale’s (Nanyang’s Affection) broad melody was given an added touch of poignancy with gaohu heard alongside Xu Zhong’s cello - a veritable love duet – before its sublime close. Rare is a Chinese concerto that does not end with a big bang.


Concluding the celebratory concert was Eric Watson’s Tapestries – Time Dances, the winning work of the afore-mentioned composition competition in 2006. Since that triumph, the highly accomplished and eclectic British composer has been the SCO’s composer-in-residence in 2016 to 2018. While Tapestries may not exactly be Nanyang music, it nonetheless possessed Pan-Asian influences including hints of Indonesian gamelan, Southeast Asian dance rhythms and Indian drumming. However it is the Western model of symphonic poems which it most strongly resembles.


The long-held pedal point in D at the rapt beginning is reminiscent of the opening dawn scene from Mahler’s First Symphony, while the pastoral air of Vaughan Williams hangs over the work’s latter half. The point of it all was not trying to imitate Chinese idioms, but the skilful use of Chinese instruments to serve musical ends. The performance itself was energetic and finely detailed, bringing the concert to a suitably spirited close.  


I have little doubt that this is the whole ethos of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, to stimulate and make good music that the general public can identify with and also enjoy. Not for nothing has the SCO been hailed as “The People’s Orchestra”.   


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